The Monitor

Production Process Insights

What You Need to Know About Sampling Oil Sands

Posted by Israel Gamboa on 6/5/19 8:17 AM
Find me on:


Every day, the world uses about 93 million barrels of crude oil, a demand that rose by 1.3% in 2018 and is soon expected to reach 99 barrels per day or more.

Oil sands mining is one method that oil producers are using to meet this demand. Although oil sands mining represents just a small percentage of crude oil production, it’s predicted that it will produce 3.7 million barrels per day by 2021. As this production increases, so will the need for accurate and efficient sampling processes.

Oil sands 101

Oil sands are found all over the world, but Canada has the third-largest oil reserves in the world and Alberta in western Canada has some of the greatest concentrations. About 15% of the world’s oil reserves are located in Alberta’s oil sands, an estimated 2.7 trillion barrels of oil. More than 96% of Canada’s total oil reserves are contained in these oil sands. On average, Alberta’s oil sands produced more than 2 million barrels per day in 2015 – about 40% of which was upgraded to light oil and the rest sold as heavy diluted bitumen.


Sampling Oil Sands

Oil sands are loose sand deposits that contain a very viscous and heavy form of petroleum called bitumen. It is composed of approximately 70% sand and clay, 10% water, and anywhere from 0% to 18% bitumen. Any oil sand that has more than 10% bitumen is considered rich. Bitumen is almost solid at room temperature and has a tar-like consistency. It takes about two tons of oil sand to produce a single barrel of oil.

Petroleum products are produced from oil sands through three basic steps:

  1. Extract the bitumen from the oil sands and remove the solids and water
  2. Upgrade the heavy bitumen to a lighter, intermediate crude oil product
  3. Refine the crude oil into final products, such as gasoline, lubricants and diluents


Throughout the process of extracting and refining bitumen, it’s important to sample the oil to provide process control for verification of bitumen extraction yield. Sampling also ensures “up time,” a critical factor to avoid fines levied by government regulators when facilities don’t properly use representative sampling during the oil sands process. 

Refining oil sands into crude oil is a challenging process, so it’s critical to choose sampling equipment that can handle the intensity. For example, samplers should be able to handle tough environments and withstand bitterly cold conditions down to -45°C (-49°F). The right equipment delivers true representative sediment sampling and analysis techniques, helping extractors and refiners accurately monitor and measure processes for improved production efficiency, output, and safety.


How bitumen is extracted and refined into oil

There are two ways to extract bitumen:


Oil sands located near the surface are mined and sent to a processing plant for removal of solids and water. Oil sands mining uses the largest trucks in the world: one scoop can contain 100 tons of oil sands.

In Situ Technology

Bitumen contained in deep deposits (more than 200 meters below the surface) is extracted in place using steam. These steam efforts include either Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) or Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). 

In its natural state, bitumen is not recoverable through a well like conventional petroleum, and it can’t be refined into common petroleum products like gasoline or kerosene without first being upgraded to crude oil.

About half of bitumen is upgraded to light synthetic crude oil by fractionation and chemical treatment, which improves the quality of the crude oil by reducing its viscosity and Sulphur content. The remainder is diluted and sold directly to refineries for processing.

After bitumen is mined, it’s mixed with water and pumped to the extraction facility, where separation begins. In separation vessels, the bitumen floats off, similar to froth on a beverage. Sand settles to the bottom of the vessels and is run through secondary separation processes, then pumped to settling ponds. 

The bitumen is then heated and mixed with a solvent so it can be pumped to an upgrading facility. At the upgrading facility, it is distilled and undergoes thermal cracking, which creates synthetic crude oil. This crude is then sold for further processing to refineries in North America.

Learn more about how Sentry Equipment has been helping mining customers with Oil Sands Sampling for over 30 years. 



Topics: Mining, Upstream & Midstream, Solids & Powder, Liquid & Slurry

Written by Israel Gamboa

Picture of Israel Gamboa
As a Regional Sales Manager, Israel Gamboa applies his expertise in oil refinery, food & beverage, petrochemical & chemical, and power generation markets for customers in California and Canada. In his 15 years of Sentry experience, he’s served in Electromechanical Assembly, Field Service, Applications Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering, and Outside Sales. Two highlights have been working with the oil sands industry for automatic sampling and various oil refineries in North America for manual sampling. Gamboa believes in making his customer’s jobs easy by listening to their wants and needs and providing a sampling solution that exceeds their expectations.